Y-12 reclaims Cold War form in making uranium 'buttons'
Sunday, January 13, 2013 at 7:12PM
Uranium Stocks

OAK RIDGE — The Y-12 nuclear weapons plant is the nation's designated Uranium Center of Excellence, and it's known worldwide for its expertise in processing and

fabricating uranium in many forms.

However, Y-12 officials now acknowledge that for a significant period after the Cold War ended — especially after safety concerns shut down processing operations for several years, beginning in 1994 — the Oak Ridge plant lost its ability to recycle highly enriched uranium with the same quality as before.

Only in the past year or so has Y-12 been able to consistently produce "buttons" of bomb-grade uranium at the same level as enjoyed during the high-production years of the U.S.-Soviet arms race.

Y-12 employs a series of processes to process scraps of highly enriched uranium, ultimately resulting in metal discs known as "buttons," which are used as feed for work on nuclear weapons, as well as supplying high-end nuclear fuel for the U.S. Navy and for research reactors — such as the High Flux Isotope Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory — that use heavily enriched uranium fuel to produce radioisotopes for medical use and other purposes.

Even though Y-12 resumed the suite of operation needed for uranium recycling after the safety stand-down, the buttons often didn't meet the Cold War standards.

"Specialists, engineers, supervisors, and chemical operators began focusing on bomb reduction (the final stage in the purifying chemical recovery process) and upstream processes," B&W Y-12, the government's managing contractor, said in a report published last summer.

Uranium specialists repeatedly tinkered with the processes until they got it right. The system is used to recycle scraps from casting operations, shavings, and even uranium bits from mop heads and filters.

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